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2021 Honda Pilot Test Drive Review
While its styling won’t win any beauty contests, the 2021 Honda Pilot endears itself to American families through its quality, utility, comfort, and driving enjoyment.
It’s been seven years since Honda last redesigned the Pilot, the automaker’s popular midsize three-row crossover SUV. In most ways, age has been kind to it, but to love a 2021 Honda Pilot you must first live with one. Unlike some competitors, the styling is not a strong suit. Rather, it is the Pilot’s interior, powertrain, driving dynamics, and simple but useful technology that makes you appreciate it each and every day. Well, that, and the cheap lease payment.
Look and Feel
Styling is as important to new vehicle buyers as factors such as reliability, safety, comfort, and performance. With the Pilot, Honda has strived to solve this riddle, most recently with a 2019-model-year refresh intended to give the SUV a more rugged appearance, and then with a 2020 Black Edition giving it the popular blacked-out look. But the SUV’s exterior design remains an acquired taste.
Seven different versions of the 2021 Pilot are on sale. They include the base LX, the popular EX, the leather-lined EX-L, the Special Edition, the tech-equipped Touring, the upscale Elite, and the blacked-out Black Edition. Pricing ranges from $32,250 to $49,920. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard, but you can add all-wheel drive (AWD) for an extra $2,000, except for Elite and Black Edition trim, where AWD is standard.
The Pilot Special Edition trim is new for 2021. It adds black 20-inch alloy wheels, blacked-out exterior trim, wireless smartphone charging, and a hands-free power tailgate. With FWD, the MSRP is $38,960.
We drove the Honda Pilot Black Edition, which comes fully loaded. The only option was a $395 Platinum White Pearl paint job, resulting in a window sticker of $51,435 including the mandatory $1,120 destination charge. Last year, the Black Edition was offered only in black, so the new white paint color is an improvement.
Black Editions have exclusive black leather upholstery with red-tinted and perforated seat inserts, red contrast stitching, and red ambient lighting. Unlike the 2021 Honda Odyssey minivan, which has new Berber-style floor mats that hide dirt, the Pilot sticks with black mats that grip animal hair like Velcro. We have two white-haired pets at our house, and the only way to fully clean the mats is to use a lint roller. Not even our Dyson Animal vacuum gets it all.
Quality materials are evident everywhere you look, and that characterization includes the hard plastic panels. Equipped with a flat dashboard, thin windshield pillars, front quarter windows, low center console with a rolltop tray, and inboard armrests, the Pilot looks and feels a lot like a minivan from the front seat. That sensation, coupled with its drab exterior design, does the Pilot no favors.
Every 2021 Honda Pilot has a 3.5-liter V6 engine under its hood. It makes 280 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, which is plenty to keep things entertaining. Power flows freely, the engine is smooth and refined, and the SUV gets up to speed quickly.
A nine-speed automatic transmission powers the front wheels unless the Pilot has the available torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system, which can put up to 70 percent of engine output to a single rear wheel. A Hill Start Assist system aids traction, while Intelligent Traction Management driving modes include Normal, Snow, Mud, and Sand.
Fuel-saving measures include variable-cylinder management and automatic engine stop/start. The EPA says the 2021 Pilot with AWD should get 22 mpg in combined driving, and the test vehicle averaged 21.5 mpg on our testing loop.
Using a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, the Pilot supplies a comfortable ride and unexpectedly athletic handling. Undoubtedly, the torque-vectoring AWD system contributes to the fun on pavement, along with the Black Edition’s 20-inch wheels, 245/50 tires, and excellent outward visibility.
Additionally, the well-weighted and responsive steering, and the properly calibrated brakes, help to put a smile on a driver’s face. As is common with Hondas, though, the brakes do heat and start to rumble and vibrate with prolonged use.
Off-road capability is limited by the Pilot’s modest 7.3 inches of ground clearance and shallow approach and departure angles, as well as its all-season tires. Get yourself into a minor sticky or tricky situation and the Pilot will likely get you out, but don’t let your bravado write checks this SUV can’t cash.
Form and Function
A Honda Pilot supplies plenty of room for a family, and it offers seating for up to eight people when equipped with a second-row bench seat.
The test vehicle’s leather-wrapped, heated, and ventilated front seats are comfortable and supportive, and while the driver's seat benefits from 10-way power adjustment in most trim levels, the front passenger must settle for four-way adjustment. Fortunately, the front passenger’s seat sits high enough to properly support the occupant’s legs.
Second-row captain’s chairs with inboard armrests are optional on the Touring trim level and standard on Elite and Black Edition models, in which they are also heated. These chairs are nearly as comfortable as the ones in front, and they slide forward to make more space for third-row passengers. The test vehicle also had side window shades and tri-zone automatic climate control, as well as a rear-seat entertainment system with an HDMI port, USB quick-charge ports, and headphone jacks.
Third-row seat comfort is mid-pack for midsize three-row SUVs. Mainly, the problem is a low and flat bottom cushion that makes it uncomfortable for grown-ups after more than a few minutes or miles.
Storage is literally everywhere. It’s carved into the door panels and the center console, and the front seatback pockets include a smartphone holder. Between the front seats, a huge storage console includes a rolltop design that creates a convenient tray.
Starting with the EX-L trim level, the Pilot includes a power tailgate. Higher trim levels also offer hands-free operation. When it rises, it reveals 16.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third-row seat. Trays are located on either side of the main load floor, and a sizable hidden storage compartment keeps smaller items organized and out of the way, or it serves as a great place to put groceries to prevent them from rolling around.
Fold the third-row seat down, and the Pilot supplies a generous 46.8 cubic feet of cargo space. This is plenty for a week-long family road trip. Maximum volume measures 83.9 cubic feet, a competitive figure.
Most Pilots include an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system equipped with Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, text-messaging support, satellite radio, and a basic version of HondaLink connected services. The new Special Edition adds wireless phone charging while Touring trim equips the SUV with navigation, HondaLink subscription services including a WiFi hotspot, a 10-speaker premium audio system, and more.
This infotainment system is adequate in comparison to what’s available in some midsize SUVs. The screen is a little small, and while the audio system has a volume knob, it lacks a tuning knob. The voice-recognition technology requires you to use specific prompts and pathways in order to achieve success. And HondaLink subscription services are limited to higher and more expensive trim levels.
The Touring trim adds a rear-seat entertainment system, a 115-volt power outlet, an HDMI port, and a Cabin Talk feature that allows the driver to speak to rear-seat passengers through the stereo speakers or the headphones in order to eliminate the need for yelling. The roof-mounted rear-seat entertainment system plays DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, and streaming audio apps. If your kids are like my kids, they’d rather use the WiFi and their phones or tablets.
Honda Sensing is standard in every 2021 Pilot. This is Honda’s package of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), and it includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist systems. Starting with EX trim, the Pilot also has a blind-spot monitoring/rear cross-traffic warning system.
The Pilot uses an older version of Honda Sensing. It works, but it’s not terribly smooth or refined in terms of operation. Also, Honda should replace the lane-departure warning system’s obvious steering wheel wobble with a more subtle vibration.
Generally speaking, crash-test ratings are favorable. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Pilot a five-star overall rating despite four-star marks for front-passenger protection in a frontal impact.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Pilot its highest “good” ratings, except for an “acceptable” score for front passenger small overlap frontal-impact protection. The standard headlights also earn an “acceptable” rating while those on higher trims earn a “good” rating.
The Honda nameplate is a strong consumer draw to the Pilot. It stands for a known quantity, a vehicle that is likely to be reliable, last a long time, and be worth something when you decide to get a replacement SUV. This reputation for resale value also allows Honda to offer affordable lease deals, making a Pilot fit into family budgets better than some competitors.
Otherwise, Honda supplies a decidedly average value equation with the Pilot. Few freebies are available, and the warranty coverage meets minimum expectations. Whether the fact that it’s a Honda is compelling enough to select a Pilot over other, often newer and more sophisticated, competitors is something only you can decide.
Having lived with the 2021 Honda Pilot for a week, we can say that it quickly becomes an indispensable tool appreciated by the whole family. If Honda can find a way to transfer some of the design mastery displayed by the company’s Accord sedan, blended with the tough and rugged image people expect of an SUV, but without eliminating the sheer utility of the current model, the next-generation Honda Pilot would prove even more compelling a choice.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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Features On 2021 Honda Pilot
Regarding a 2021 Honda AWD Pilot, what are the feature differences between a "Special Edition" and an EX-L?
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